So, far, the Columbus Blue Jackets stink.
After an off-season marked by a series of bold moves, the first six games of the season have been abysmal. The revamped team has failed to win a game and have managed one point in their first six outings.
It’s a good thing Nationwide Arena’s cannon is bolted to the floor, or irate fans might turn it on the team’s bench.
It is nearly impossible to determine exactly who or what has been responsible for the team’s early swoon. With so many new faces it’s possible the team has not gelled yet. James Wisniewski’s eight-game suspension has kept an emotional leader off the ice. There have been lineup changes that haven’t clicked yet.
Watching last night’s game made one thing very clear. Steve Mason is not the goalie he once was. Not even close. He has very clearly regressed in his development and needs to spend some quality time as a backup.
Steve Ott’s second period goal against Mason last night is a great example. At the end of a rush, Ott took a wrist shot from the left side faceoff dot that blew past Mason’s glove and into the net. Mason made three key mistakes on the shot and made the goal easy for Ott.
First, replay shows that Mason over committed to the left side, giving Ott a fair amount of net on his glove side. It looked as if Mason had no idea where he was positioned in terms of being able to protect the entire net, which is something a 6’4” goalie should do with ease.
In addition to overplaying the angle, Mason failed to square himself to the shooter. Directly facing the shooter makes the net smaller. It also closes down empty spaces that lead to pucks hitting the back of the net.
Squaring up also helps goalies with rebound control by increasing the odds that a puck hitting the goalie’s leg pads will bounce back out in front of him, making the second and third shots easier to defend.
Mason’s last mistake on the Ott goal was being too far back in the crease. Laying back in the crease gives shooters more net to shoot at, no matter what the angle. Some hockey experts will say it’s not as much of a concern when a goalie as tall as Mason lays back, because he can still cover a large part of the net. But coverage is only part of the story there. Goalies lacking in confidence tend to lay back and not challenge shooters.
Patrick Roy was great at coming out of the net to challenge shooters. He practically dared them to beat him. He had amazing confidence in his ability to stop shooters. Ditto for Dominic Hasek.
Mason’s biggest problem seems to be that he’s suffering from a lack of confidence in the net. That's easy to understand. He’s borne the brunt of far too many losses by having the misfortune of playing in Columbus where a mid-season collapse is a franchise tradition. Take away Mason’s wonderful rookie year and his record is 44-52-17 with a goals against average well north of three per game.
While a lack of confidence may be easy to understand, for the long-suffering (and shrinking) fan base, it is not easy to forgive. The team needs wins and it needs them now.
The good news is that he’s only twenty-three and there is enough time for him to realize his immense potential. He has a great position coach in Ian Clark, who has a track record of making good goalies great. He has the support of his coach and the team’s management.
But the reality is that he needs to have some of the pressure taken off. Scott Howson needs to find an experienced No. 1 goalie and bring him into town. Go with a two-player rotation. It will give the rest of the team a more confident goalie no matter who plays, and will guarantee that one goalie will step up and get a win when it’s desperately needed.